ESTERO, Fla. — The Colorado Eagles found themselves down 2-1 Saturday night, halfway through the third period in game seven of the 2018 ECHL Kelly Cup Final.
They’ve been here before, just two and a half weeks ago.
Last round, when the Fort Wayne Komets carried a 3-1 lead over Colorado midway through the third period in game seven of the Western Conference Final, the Eagles dug deep and mustered two goals in the span of four minutes from captain Matt Garbowsky and forward Joey Ratelle to tie the game and head into overtime. Eagles defenseman Ryan Olsen drove home a rebound on a Ratelle shot at 10:34 of the extra frame to push Colorado into the Kelly Cup Final on a 4-3 comeback victory.
They’d been there before, but for context, let’s start from the beginning of Saturday night’s winner-take-all tilt.
The Colorado Eagles began the all-decisive game of the 2018 Kelly Cup Final stifled, falling behind on the shot sheet early in the first period by a count of 10-3, Florida. In the midst of the Everblades’ surge of shots, Colorado’s neutral zone turnovers once again bit them as they have all series, After one such turnover, a cutting Spencer Smallman caught the Eagles’ defense off guard with a blast of speed into Colorado territory. Wristing a shot blocker-side by Colorado goaltender Joe Cannata, Smallman gave the Everblades an early 1-0 lead at 8:43 of the first.
Colorado closed the gap in the shots on goal category by the end of the first period, finishing with nine while Florida ended with twelve. The refocused effort concerning pucks on net was rewarded in period two when Colorado forward Michael Joly received a poked pass from fellow forward Shawn St-Amant as the two pushed ahead into Florida’s zone past defenders Gus Young and Matt Mackenzie. A diving Young couldn’t slow Joly down, as the playoff leader in goals added lucky number 13 to his list by going forehand to backhand and lifting the puck top shelf passed Ouellette at 14:19 of the second period.
The third period brought with it some shot parity after a quick peppering of Cannata in the first minute of play. Florida slightly edged Colorado 3-2 in shots on goal five minutes into the final frame. The Everblades would take their fourth shot of the period during a 2-on-1 breakaway chance, with Florida left winger Sam Warning passing beyond a hapless, sprawled out Eagles defender to a waiting John McCarron. McCarron flipped it above Cannata’s glove, giving the Everblades the 2-1 lead at 6:15 of the third period.
And Colorado had been here before.
Colorado began pushing harder towards the net after McCarron’s tally, starting with a Shawn St-Amant shot on net that was turned aside by Florida netminder Martin Ouellette at 9:36 of the third. The Eagles continued the pressure on the Everblades, bringing the puck in and circulating it to Ben Storm, who then threaded a pass behind Florida’s net to Travis Barron on the left wing short side. Barron placed the puck on net, perchance that the shot might go in…
…and the rubber dribbled by Ouellette to tie the game at 2-2, with the goal marked at 10:45 of period three.
The Everblades netted two more shots on goal before defenseman Derek Sheppard was called for a holding minor, clinging to Michael Joly as he drove towards Ouellette on a scoring chance. The minor was clocked at 14:53, a little over five minutes remaining in regulation. Before Colorado could generate a shot on goal, however, Joly lost his cool after an offside call and slashed Florida defenseman Zack Kamrass across the shins. Joly then headed to the box for the two-minute minor at 15:35 of the third, breaking his already fractured stick in half on his way.
The resulting 4-on-4 hockey came and went, as Sheppard returned to the ice just as Colorado d-man Nicolas Meloche put a shot on Ouellette for a stoppage at 16:59 of the third. After a quality Florida rebound chance from Stephen MacAulay was tooled wide, the Eagles found themselves on a 3-on-2 shorthanded blitz with Shawn St-Amant possessing the puck. St-Amant passed it to the left wing for defenseman Gabriel Verpaeslt, taking advantage of a moving pick set by the third man, Matt Garbowsky. Verpaelst’s resulting wrist shot screamed through Ouellette’s five-hole at 17:31 of the third period. The Sherbrooke, Quebec native celebrated with one knee on the ground and both hands on his head – much like Florida forward Mitchell Heard did in game two after scoring a last-minute, game-winning goal in Loveland.
They’ve been here before.
With 1:28 left in regulation, Colorado was called for icing, and Florida took their chance to pull Ouellette for an extra skater. A flurry of three shots were all turned away by Cannata on the resulting sequence. After a faceoff to the goalie’s left, a hand pass call brought yet another faceoff, this time to the neutral zone outside of Eagles territory. Ouellette came back into his net but quickly vacated it after Florida’s faceoff win. The final shot on goal was credited to Mitchell Heard, who jammed a puck on Cannata at 19:22 of the third.
Colorado spent the final moments of game seven clamping down on defense and spending time trying to get an empty-net insurance goal. One last gasp from Florida to put an attempt on net proved fruitless, as the Eagles mobbed their goaltender when the clock reached zero.
Colorado has won their second consecutive Kelly Cup Championship.
Of course, they’ve been here before.
News of Note
Colorado becomes the first franchise in ECHL history to win the Kelly Cup before moving up to another league, as the Eagles are set to become an AHL franchise for the 2018-19 season. The unprecedented victory means that the 2018-19 ECHL season will be the first ever where the league champion is not present to defend their title.
After spending the 2016-17 ECHL regular season with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, forward Michael Joly signed with the Colorado Eagles in the 2017 offseason. 41 goals later, Joly came in first atop the ECHL’s goal-scoring list for the 2017-18 regular season. Now, finishing the 2018 Kelly Cup Playoffs with a league-leading 13 goals and 29 points, Joly can add playoff MVP to that list of honors. The former New York Rangers prospect was awarded the Kelly Cup Playoffs Most Valuable Player award right before the Kelly Cup itself was presented to Eagles captain Matt Garbowsky.
Colorado’s Gabriel Verpaelst drove home the game-winning goal in arguably the biggest game of his career. The only other goal Verpaelst tallied this postseason was in a two-point effort (one goal, one assist) in game three of the Mountain Division Semifinal against the Wichita Thunder, nearly two months ago on April 18.
The Florida Everblades finished with three of the top five point-getters in the postseason. Center Michael Kirkpatrick (22 points) and forwards Mitchell Heard (22 pts) & John McCarron (20 pts) finished second thru fourth in points, respectively, for the 2018 Kelly Cup Playoffs. Kirkpatrick was also second in goals (11), while McCarron was third (10) and Heard was fifth (9). Colorado forward J.C. Beaudin lead all rookies in postseason scoring (10) while finishing fourth overall.
Saturday night’s game seven marked the fifth time the ECHL Championship has been decided in a seven-game series. The previous times, in reverse chronological order, are as follows:
- Allen def. South Carolina, 6-1 (2015 – Kelly Cup Final)
- South Carolina def. Alaska, 4-2 (2009 – Kelly Cup Final)
- Mississippi def. Richmond, 4-3 (2OT) (1999 – Kelly Cup Final)
- Carolina def. Johnstown, 7-4 (1989 – Riley Cup Final)